Climate change

Why melting glaciers affect us all

Alpine glaciers could disappear by the end of the century. The consequences will be felt not only in Switzerland’s mountains but throughout Europe. 

This content was published on October 25, 2023 - 15:24
Corina Staffe (Illustration)

That glaciers are melting is nothing new: since 1850, the volume of Alpine glaciers has decreased by about 60%. What is surprising, however, is the rate at which the Alpine “giants” are shrinking. 

"The retreat of glaciers is accelerating," says Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich, and member of the steering committee of GLAMOS, the Swiss glacier monitoring network.

A study published in 2022 concludes that Swiss glaciers lost half their volume between 1931 and 2016 and a further 12% between 2016 and 2021.

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In the hydrological year 2022-2023, 4% of glacial mass was lost. The melting in the past two years was equal to that recorded between 1960 and 1990, according to GLAMOS. 

“The melting of glaciers last year shattered all records. The melting this year was less shocking for us – and that is worrying,” says glaciologist Matthias Huss in an interview with SWI The melting of glaciers is driven by dry winters, resulting in thin snow cover, and high temperatures in summer, he explains.

Following the record high temperatures even at high altitudes, objects and human remains have emerged more frequently in the Alps. In 2022 the wreckage of a plane trapped in the ice for over 50 years was found. These discoveries are set to increase in the coming years, according to Robert Bolognesi, a snow scientist and director of Meteorisk.

Since the pre-industrial era, the temperature in Switzerland has increased by almost 2° Celsius, twice the global average. At this rate, half of the 1,500 Alpine glaciers – including the majestic Aletsch glacier, a UNESCO heritage site – will disappear in the next 30 years. And if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all glaciers in Switzerland and Europe risk melting almost completely by the end of the century, researchers warn. 

Glaciers are retreating not only in the Alps. Almost all glaciers worldwide are becoming thinner and losing mass faster and faster. The melting is particularly alarming in the Himalaya region and in the Andes, where hundreds of millions of people depend on glaciers.

However, there are exceptions. Some glaciers in central Asia seem not to suffer the effects of global warming, and their surface, instead of shrinking, has remained stable or has even grown. A Swiss project intends to investigate the reasons behind this anomaly.

Will the decline of glaciers, a recurrent phenomenon throughout Earth’s history – albeit over longer periods – have a negative impact on our future? It’s hard to say. It certainly forces us to prepare for new scenarios. 

In Switzerland, one such scenario is the increased risk of natural disasters such as floods, debris flows and landslides. The lakes that form inside glaciers risk suddenly spilling downhill, wiping out villages and infrastructure.

And with the thinning of the ice and the permafrost layer, the mountains are becoming less stable. Images of the subsidence of the Alpine slopes are revealing. 

With the melting of glaciers, Switzerland is also losing a major water reserve, estimated to contain enough drinking water for the Swiss population for 60 years.

Of course, Switzerland will continue to have enough water, even if its population rises from the current 8.5 million to ten million in 2050. However, it will be necessary to change the methods of managing rainfall – which will become increasingly liquid and less snowy – to avoid water conflicts, says Paolo Burlando, professor of hydrology and water management at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. The creation of multipurpose storage basins in the mountains, in areas free from ice, could offer new opportunities for hydroelectric production and agriculture. 

According to a scenario developed by ETH Zurich and the Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape WSL, the complete melting of glaciers could generate 683 new lakes in the Alps.

The situation in Europe could be more problematic, especially in regions located hundreds of kilometres from the Alps. Due to the lower contribution of melting snow and glaciers, the flow of large European rivers – the Rhône, Rhine, Danube and Po – could decrease considerably in the summer months. A drop in the level of rivers and lakes will make it harder to travel by water and to transport goods to and from Switzerland.

To preserve this heritage of national importance that has helped make Switzerland known worldwide, scientists have undertaken a race against time. On the Morteratsch glacier in canton Graubünden in eastern Switzerland, a project has been launched to protect the glacier with artificial snow; a system that, if successful, can also be used in the Himalayas and the Andes. 

In order to slow down the melting of the ice, geotextile sheets are also increasingly used in the Alps. Placed on the glacier, they reflect sunlight and help preserve the snow and ice below. While they can be effective and profitable locally, their wider use is neither feasible nor cost-effective, according to a Swiss study published in 2021.

But science won’t be able to do anything if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. In Switzerland, the struggle to protect glaciers is thus shifting from the mountains to political chambers and ballot boxes.

In the autumn session, the Swiss parliament adopted the counter-proposal to the popular initiative "For a healthy climate" (Glaciers Initiative), which includes measures to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The initiative has been withdrawn, but the referendum has already been launched against the changes to the law envisaged by the counter-proposal.

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